As the world yawns

The Clinton spin machine kicks into overdrive to protect the president against the damaging allegations in the Cox Report.


Jake Tapper
May 28, 1999 12:14PM (UTC)

That's the problem with a Chinese scandal. One hour later and you're already hungry for another one.

Just look at the shelf life of Congress' investigation of Chinese spying. All that hard work by the Cox Committee, and the story was knocked off the front page of the Washington Post by day two. So Republicans angry at the success of the Clinton spin machine are trying to give the spying issue a longer life by resurrecting another Democratic scandal that wouldn't stick to the nation's ribs: the flap over Chinese and Chinese-American campaign contributions.

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Even though the nine-member Cox Committee was hailed as a paradigm of bipartisan cooperation, it didn't take long for partisan sniping to begin on Capitol Hill. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., has called for the resignation of Attorney General Janet Reno. The heretofore invisible Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, wants National Security Advisor Sandy Berger to resign. And though the Cox Report's grave conclusions were agreed to by four Democrats, those Democrats have backed away from their work as the Clinton spin machine has kicked into overdrive. Cox Committee member Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., D-S.C., said the report "is alarming. But is it accurate?" The committee's ranking Democrat, Washington's Norm Dicks, said that the conclusions were "written in a worst-case fashion."

Frustrated Republican committee member Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania says the Clinton communications team partially inoculated itself against bad press by leaking the least damaging aspects of the story before the official report was made public on Tuesday. "The administration wants
the media to focus on the labs because that part of the story took place
during a previous administration and also because the problem has been done
away with," Weldon said in an interview with Salon News.

Weldon took his j'accusatories one step further, laying out an intricate conspiratorial time line of all the Asian-themed scandals of the past few years. Could all of the Asian names associated with the administration's campaign finance scandals somehow tie in with the exportation of U.S. military and commercial technology? Weldon, a blue collar Republican and former fire chief from the Philadelphia suburbs, has no proof. But on Thursday he plotted the dots behind the various Asian scandals and asked the national press corps to connect them.

One chart, labeled "The China Connection," was designed to prove links between Chinese military organizations, Chinese front companies, banks and financial institutions and players in the scandal like the Lippo Group, John Haung, James Riady and Vice President Al Gore.

The other chart, "Liberalized/Decontrolled Technologies to Peoples Republic of China," is a time line that begins in January 1993, suggests there may be a connection between the White House visits of Huang, Riady, Johnny Chung and Charlie Yah Lin Trie to Chinese space launch transfers, warhead design and Chinese sales of weapons to Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, and Syria.

Weldon admits his evidence is only circumstantial. "I don't have the direct quid pro quos," Weldon acknowledged. "Our mission on the committee was to determine if technology transfers occurred; not why they did, if they did." Pressed to give the motivation for letting corporate jackals have at it, Weldon said that he "thought that was obvious: Technology safeguards were loosened on behalf of political and financial allies of the president in exchange for their continued support and so the president could be reelected in 1996. That played the major influence on the entire process."

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"That's outrageous," says National Security Council spokesman David Leavy. "The Cox Committee looked into and found absolutely no evidence with issues of lab security with anything having to do with campaign finance. You may question our judgment about how we handled lab security -- and rightly so -- but any question of our motivation is outrageous and offensive."

Leavy says that blaming the current scandal on Clinton is also only giving part of the picture. "A vast majority of the Cox Report details events that went on in the '70s and '80s," Leavy says. "And there is no evidence that there was any compromise of nuclear weapons information at the labs during the Clinton presidency" -- though Leavy acknowledges that "ongoing investigations" may eventually contradict that assertion.

Over the last six years, Clinton's team has proved masterful at spoon-feeding information to the press, and controlling which parts of the story get the most ink and air time. "The Clintonites have gone the 'modified limited hangout' route of acknowledging some damage was done, while also relentlessly reminding reporters that much of this happened during the Reagan-Bush years and insisting that they have got the problem under control," says Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, author of "Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine."

Kurtz says that such spin tactics are par for the course. "The White House has pretty clearly been on the defensive for months over this issue and it's hardly surprising that they would emphasize a defense that plays to their strongest points," he observes. Nor is such a White House strategy new. "During the campaign fund-raising scandals," Kurtz says, "the White House adopted a deliberate strategy of leaking the most damaging memos and materials about their fund-raising abuses so they could proudly proclaim it to be 'old news' by the time congress got around to airing it. And to a surprising degree, that was a successful strategy."

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Leavy doesn't dispute that his office provided information for "the public," but he downplays its significance. "We made available to the public the Cox Committee Report recommendations, and our responses to them," he says, "but there was a lot of leakage of information that didn't come from the administration. I'd caution the congressman on pointing fingers."

National security experts fear the severity of the allegations in the Cox Report are being drowned out by political bickering as campaign 2000 draws near. According to the Cox Report, President Reagan first approved the exportation of U.S. communication satellites for China to launch on Chinese rockets. The process continued long after Reagan left office, despite the fact that, according to the testimony of former Reagan Assistant Secretary for Trade Administration Paul Freedenberg, "no one in the Reagan administration thought of this new policy as a long term policy ... Unfortunately, that's precisely what it's become."

"This is a problem that has gone on for the last 25 years," Leavy says. "This is not the time to score political points or make political hay."

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Granted, this may not pose the same threat to national security as 10 blowjobs from an intern, but the allegations might merit a bit more attention. After all, the 862-page report claims China stole the design technology of the U.S.'s most advanced thermonuclear weapons, used that technology for its next generation of thermonuclear weapons, and that these lapses in national security date back "at least the past several decades and almost certainly continues today."

In a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday, Weldon did not dispute past espionage and security breaches dating as far back as the Carter administration, but he asserts that few in the media are reporting the vast number of problems the report specifically lays at Clinton's feet.

While the past and current espionage is calamitous and disturbing, Weldon says, what he finds most curious is the Clinton administration's overt policy decisions that led to weakened national security: to disband or "decimate" supervisory organizations like Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Control (COCOM) and the Defense Technology Security Agency (DTSA) and to end security controls like color-coded classification tags.

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Indeed, on Thursday, the Senate acted to firm up some of the laxness allowed in the Clinton administration's efforts at increased international trade. On a voice vote, the senators passed a bundle of measures extending Congress' oversight of exports of sensitive technology, and increasing counterintelligence training to ensure the better protection of classified data.

Another -- maybe more plausible -- motivation for the Clinton administration's "liberalized" control of information technologies is that it no doubt helped fuel our ever-mighty economy.
According to Robert Kapp, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, the opening of markets between the United States and China "accounts for roughly 200,000 American jobs in the year 1998."

Speaking in Texas after the report's release, Clinton made no comment on administration trade policies called into question, nor did he mention the recommendations made by the Cox Committee that specifically addressed current oversight problems -- putting power back into the hands of the Departments of Defense and State, and away from the Department of Commerce and the Department of Free for All.

"Like many other countries," Clinton said, "China seeks to acquire our sensitive information and technology ... In February of 1998 I signed an order that put into place the most sweeping reorganization ever of counterintelligence in our nuclear weapons labs."

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Clinton then launched into what presumably he views as a silver lining of the Cox Committee's gray-cloud conclusion. "I strongly believe that our continuing engagement with China has produced benefits for our national security," such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. "I want to assure you and all the American people that I will work very hard with the Congress to protect our national security, to implement the recommendations and to continue our policy of engagement because both of them are in the national interest."

Weldon wants to press further. He says that FBI Director Freeh has testified that the media only knows about 1 percent of the scandal so far. He wants to see a copy of a top-secret memo sent by Freeh to Attorney General Janet Reno which outlined his reasons for supporting an independent counsel to investigate alleged Clinton-Gore 1996 campaign finance shenanigans.

At his Thursday news conference, Weldon said that his new battle cry will be "'Release the Louie Freeh memo!' That will be my No. 1 priority over the next two years. I'm convinced there are connections!"

"This is our national security!" he cried toward the end of his news conference. "This is not Monica Lewinsky!"

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Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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